In the hours immediately following Barcelona’s Champions League triumph at Wembley last month, their main man had already looked beyond the celebrations to his next challenge.
“Today is a very special day! Now I want to do the same with the National Team!”, he told his 18 million facebook followers.
The message not only highlights Messi’s insatiable appetite for success, he had just lifted his third Champions League title and scored his 53rd goal of the season in the process, but also an underlying feeling of unfulfilment.
For all that the 23-year-old has already won more than his weight in gold in club and personal honours, the Olympic title in 2008 apart, he has not won a senior international tournament with Argentina. A barren run that stretches back beyond Messi’s time some 18 years since La Albiceleste won a major international tournament. Now, with the continents finest arriving on their home soil, the Argentine public does not expect that run to end, they demand it.
In their eyes the onus is on one man to deliver it. Messi may now be widely regarded in Europe as one of the all-time greats, but his image in his homeland suffers somewhat from having performed all his best work across the Atlantic.
Comparisons with Diego Maradona have been so rife that even El Diego himself has had to admit that the Rosario born star has come closer than any of the hundreds of ‘next Maradona’s’ to come out of Argentina in the past 20 years. Messi, by his own admission, will never match Maradona’s popularity as a cult figure in Argentina; he doesn’t have the arrogance or indeed the dark side that have made Maradona’s life the best soap opera Argentina ever had.
However, on the pitch Messi is determined to ensure he can go some way towards replicating his former national team manager’s achievements.
To that end, Maradona’s successor on the bench, Alfio Batista, has tried to replicate Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system and style as much as possible to give his star the best platform to shine.
The difference from last summer’s team in South Africa is the addition of two other central midfielders, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega, alongside Messi’s Barcelona teammate and captain Javier Mascherano. The ex-Liverpool man’s attempt to plug a dam with a dish towel as the lone barrier in front of the back four during his side’s 4-0 defeat to Germany last summer was Maradona’s major tactical downfall.
Batista has also attempted to add balance to the front three with Messi dropping into his favoured false nine position, flanked by Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Germany coach Jogi Löw described the deployment of a front four of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain alongside Messi and Di Maria last summer as splitting the team in two. Once Argentina surrendered possession these four were completely by-passed, allowing the midfield area to be swamped by counter-attacking opponents.
The presence of Tevez, however, creates an extra dilemma for Basile. It won’t come as a surprise to any fans in Manchester to know that a public spat between the two had seen Tevez dropped for a series of friendlies earlier in the year. A reconciliation, backed by a vociferous pro-Tevez media campaign has seen the Manchester City striker included in the 23-man squad. Yet, his recall does raise some questions: how long will he tolerate being sat on the bench? Will his apparently testy relationship with Messi cause a problem? And, moreover, are the two even compatible on the field given they both prefer to play between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence?
Those are questions that Basile will have to find an answer to over the next three weeks. But, one thing is for sure, despite the public affection for Tevez, the Argentine public is backing on one man to deliver the Copa America. And the World’s best player and his 18 million facebook friends know it.
Written by Kieran Canning
For all the Copa America coverage go to: The Oval Log run by Scotzine Sub-Editor Stefan Bienkowski